The origins of bread (and the act of breaking bread) are traced to the first gatherings of people. Ancient clans, long before recorded history, left behind evidence of their close relationship with the precursors of this essential food.
To this day, bread is still the most commonly consumed food in the world; no other single food source is so widely or regularly consumed. Nor does any other food follow the footsteps of man so closely.
While bread is as common in our lives as in any medieval diet, it has come under scrutiny of late due to its sin of being composed almost entirely of carbohydrates!
In the ever-rotating roulette wheel of nutrition, we have (for the time being) landed on carbohydrates as the enemy of good health. Thus bread is officially broken. But before we eject these bundles of carbs from our lives, we should take a closer look at bread and how it just might have a place in the pantry (and our bellies.)
The Bread of Life
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
The story of bread is really the story of civilization. Arguably the most important human food source, bread is not only a great store of calories and essential vitamins and minerals, but it is also an element of production and consumption from which civilizations have emerged and thrived.
It was not long ago that, in some way or another, bread filled an essential role in the daily lives of most people. Bread was at the center of family, community, civility, and spirituality. From the cultivation of grains to the baker’s shelves, bread was a unifying force in human cooperation.
While this is still true for many around the world, bread has largely been relocated from the hearth to the corners of our mega-grocery stores. But bread is still an icon for what it means to be human and the unique relationship we have with the bounty of nature.
Background on Breaking Bread
Bread became what we know today through a long process of cultivation and innovation that traced the progress of humans mastering their environment.
Wheat berries alone were difficult to consume. So a means to grind them into a paste was invented. The need for mobility required a more durable and convenient form, so the paste was heated over hot stones or embers into a hardened crust.
This unleavened form of bread would last for thousands of years until people discovered that wild (and mysterious) yeast would make their homes in the uncooked paste of grain and water.
Rise and Fall of Yeast
As yeast consumes the natural sugars in the grains, CO2 is released, resulting in bubbles. When trapped in the batter, these bubbles create additional space, making the bread expand. When heated, the bread trapped air expands even more and rises or “leavens.”
Around 1000 BC, Egyptians were able to isolate yeast and introduce the culture directly to their breads. During that same time, a new strain of wheat was developed that allowed for greater refinement. This combination of cultivated yeast and refined wheat was the first ancient bread to resemble our modern bread.
Bread would continue to be an essential part of life, a “staff of life”, for eons. The essential role of bread throughout human history is confirmed by its importance in religious texts, rituals, and ceremonies that remain to this day.
Our Daily Bread
“Give us this day our daily bread” means much more than merely a stay of hunger; our daily bread is about moral sustenance, a powerful recurring theme in Hildegard’s spiritual work and food medicine.
Hildegard also wrote of the microcosm and the macrocosm as a means to exemplify the spiritual and physical interconnectivity of man and the universe. Bread contains its own kind of micro-macrocosm as it transcends the confines of a mere food to the possibility of being much more.
A loaf of bread contains valuable nutrition and calories but it also carries the part of the story of humanity. From disparate clans to modern civilization, bread is a result of the culmination of man gathering together and harnessing nature. There is much beauty in its simplicity as a food. But as a symbol it carries the complex relationships that bind us to a shared history and a shared world.
The Gift of Breaking Bread
Bread is a direct result of our interconnectivity with nature and those around us that Hildegard wrote about with such importance. In a way, bread is also a microcosm of the rule of fours. The four elements of earth, fire, air and water that comprise the universe are also required to make bread.
“Breaking Bread” serves our bodies, but also higher purpose, including those we love. Whether it is the Holy Communion, or the gift of a meal, bread represents a means to enrich our spirit, mind and body.
Much of what makes Hildegard’s holistic thinking, along with the wisdom of other ancient thinkers, so timeless is that it focuses on simplicity and pragmatism. In other words, what is actionable?
There is a finite amount of available information at any given time. We cannot know it all nor can we optimize toward some unknown quantity. For Hildegard, navigating the known and unknown meant living through moderation in all things, including meals.
Whether you are embarking on a healthy fast or just continuing your journey toward better living, Hildegard’s notion of moderation or discretio is something to keep in mind when the megaphone of the media is shouting down this or that.
Namely, we hear a lot about how “bad” carbohydrates are these days. But through the lens of moderation, we can see that the problem is likely not those evil “carbs”, but instead one of excess, indulgence, and apathy.
So go break bread with those you love, in moderation.